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West Seneca mulls suing AmeriCorps Town claims tardiness in making separation payments

The Town of West Seneca is poised to take legal action against Western New York AmeriCorps, which was created before the West Seneca programs of the national youth organization split from the town last March.

West Seneca alleges AmeriCorps has been late in paying the $1.8 million it owes the town. It is in negotiations with a law firm about a possible lawsuit.

"I've had enough," Councilwoman Sheila M. Meegan said. "This is outrageous that we're sitting back. It's a total breach of contract. [They] promised that [they] would start reimbursing the town on a monthly basis, and [they] failed to do that. Enough is enough."

Supervisor Wallace C. Piotrowski said none of the more than $400,000 lump sum payment described in the separation agreement has been paid. The payment was due June 1.

Western New York AmeriCorps officials say they are depending on state grants that have been slow to trickle in.

"That's just how it works," said Patrick Metzger, AmeriCorps spokesman. "With grants, the reimbursement process sometimes takes longer than expected."

Piotrowski said the town hasn't received any communication about a delayed process, which Metzger and Mark P. Lazzara, CEO of Western New York AmeriCorps, dispute.

"If they can show us legitimate documents to back up the position [that] they haven't been reimbursed by the state, we might reconsider," Piotrowski said.

Lazzara and Metzger say the repayment process has become politicized. They accuse the Town Board of misleading the public by answering "no" when asked at meetings if the debt has been paid off.

"I think it benefited their interests for people to believe Western New York AmeriCorps is not acting in good faith," Metzger said.

Because each monthly payment has been about one month late, Comptroller Robert J. Bielecki said he answered that the month's payment had not been received at the time of Town Board meetings, held on the first Monday of each month.

Last January's payment, for instance, did not arrive until Feb. 12, while the February payment arrived March 15, Bielecki said. Payments for June, July and August were not made until a $24,000 check was received Sept. 9, he added.

Lazzara said to avoid confusion, Western New York AmeriCorps is hand-delivering checks to Town Hall and is offering to sell one of its properties to make up the funding gap.

He said the organization is looking to sell its property at 16 School St., which it obtained from the town in 2008. Lazzara said the property was rehabilitated and served as housing for Western New York AmeriCorps members from out of town.

Piotrowski doubted the sale of the house would be enough to cover the debt. Lazzara said a realtor has estimated the property's worth at $100,000.

"We gave it to them. He's regifting," Meegan said at the Dec. 6 board meeting, where she called for legal action against Western New York AmeriCorps.

Lazzara said communication between Western New York AmeriCorps and the Town Board has broken down to the point where the organization communicates with only one town employee.

That employee, whom Lazzara declined to name, said Western New York AmeriCorps would be all right as long as it kept making payments, according to Lazzara.

He said the nonprofit organization, which has a staff of 30 at its new South Buffalo offices, does not want to pay legal fees associated with a lawsuit.

"We're fighting hard to stay alive," Lazzara said.

e-mail: cspecht@buffnews.com

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